Book of the year 2009 – Pepys’s Diary

I keep a list of books I’ve read. I’ve been doing this since 1979 so I’ve just completed 30 years of recording my reading. I usually come up with a list of my Top 10 books of the year but I could only come up with a Top 5 list for 2009. I read more books than usual, 172, but there weren’t as many standout books for me last year. I reread quite a bit & these are always favourites, but I don’t put rereads on my Top list. In 2009, my Top 5 was dominated by diaries & letters. I read the final volumes of Christina Rossetti’s Letters & L M Montgomery’s Journals. I’ve been reading these over several years, waiting for them to be published & then available through ILL & last year, I finally got hold of the last volumes. But, my book of the year was The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Only the Shorter Pepys I should add, although the Shorter is still 1000pp long. I would love to read the complete Diary now that I’ve had a taste, but living with Sam for the few weeks it took me to read this volume was a wonderful introduction to his world. It took a little while to get into the rhythm of the Diary & to work out who everyone was. The Diary begins at a moment of high drama in 1660 with the political machinations which will lead to the Restoration of Charles II. Pepys is actually in the fleet that goes to Holland to bring the new King back to England. From that moment, he’s plunged into an immense amount of work as a hard working clerk to the Navy Board. He’s a witness to many public events in the nine years of the Diary including the Great Fire & the plague as well as the Dutch War. His personal life is, if anything, even more fascinating. His love of the theatre, fine clothes & bad women is told with such honesty. This is what I loved most about the Diary. Although he was only writing for himself, he is meticulous in justifying every extravagance. He vowed he would only attend so many plays per month, but he’s ingenious at getting around his own vow when he’s desperate to see a performance. His sexual adventures are hidden, even from himself, in a peculiar mixture of French & Latin as if he can’t quite admit to himself that he’s behaving badly. He’s honest about his sometimes shabby treatment of his much younger wife, Elizabeth, & enjoys describing his bodily ailments & their cures. The minutiae of everyday life for an up & coming clerk in government service is just fascinating. I also admired his pride in his success as he adds up every month how much he’s worth. At the end of the book I felt bereft. Pepys stopped writing the Diary in 1669 because he thought he was losing his sight. Luckily, he didn’t, but what a shame that he didn’t resume the Diary. Imagine what we could have learnt about the rest of the reign of Charles II, the short, disastrous reign of James II & the Glorious Revolution. Still, I’m so grateful for what Pepys did write & that I have the whole 10 vols to look forward to reading in the future.

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